Thursday, March 16, 2006

Gender and Identity on St. Patrick's Day.

Gore Vidal, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 (New York: Vintage, 2001).

See also:

Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999).

I was hoping to transfer an essay that I have written and posted at Philosopher's Quest dealing with Judith Butler's philosophical work. Viruses and other spyware have damaged that text, seemingly beyond repair, so that any effort to transfer it to this site, results in an illegible scramble of words.

I will summarize some of my ideas, which are given fuller expression in that article. I recommend Butler's work -- since spacing is a problem in my essay and it has been damaged, I may have to retype it -- for those who are interested in these issues. Finally, I was able to transfer an earlier version of the Butler piece from another site. Keep your fingers crossed.

Anyone who states the views that I am about to defend is subject to insults and worse, as I can attest from experience, but there are times when we must be willing to speak out on controversial matters no matter what happens to us as a result of doing so. If we can no longer count on the legal establishment's assistance in the exercise of our rights (I will continue to hope that this is not so), then we have even more reason not to refrain from exercising those rights. In fact, such a situation is more of a reason to insist on our rights and to fight for them.

It is always those who are least secure in their own sexuality or gender choices, who find it necessary to strike out at others, because they fail to recognize that such qualities -- sexuality and gender -- are essential to identity and must be respected as part of any individual's autonomy. Geneder choices are simply not the State's or anyone else's business.

Before delving into these issues, I should make it clear to those who are planning on sending me "hate e-mails" or worse, that calling me a "fag" does not cause me to revise my opinion. I always get some heated responses when I deal with this issue, usually from people who do not understand what I am saying. Living in New York, I tend to forget the intensity of people's feelings on this issue in other parts of the country. No doubt I will be reminded of that intensity yet again.

I am not gay. However, being called gay is not an insult, as far as I am concerned, because it is not shameful to be gay. It is shameful to be intolerant of others' life-choices or opinions. It should not be forgotten that over one million gay persons died in Hitler's concentration camps, since being gay was a category of criminal guilt in Nazi society. I am not surprised by this historical fact. (See Gore Vidal's essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star.")

Gender and sexual freedom is always frightening to totalitarians, especially when it is claimed by women. Hence, the concentration camps for gays in Castro's Cuba during the sixties. The reasons for this have to do with power, not divine revelation. Gays are more difficult to control and more independent of social conventions, usually, so they are seen as threatening by control freaks. It is an achievement of Cuban society that such camps are no longer possible in that society.

We must, finally, accept the reality of women's equal right to sexual freedom. Is biology destiny with regard to gender and sexual orientation? I don't think so. Biology alone does not determine whether and how much a person wishes to have sex. Some women like a lot of sex, some don't; some men want monogamy and fidelity; some men don't. There is no message hidden in the stars about this. The choices are ours. Culture and history are as important as biology in these choices.

The scientific questions involved in this inquiry should be distinguished from the cultural and philosophical issues. Gender should be distinguished from the biological accident (or "choice," in light of current reproductive technologies) of genital "equipment." I was born with one of these and you have one of those. These biological facts do not determine destiny with regard to gender, as I say, which is socially constructed.

What it means to be masculine and/or feminine is not the same as the biological fact that a person is born a man or woman. No gender choice concerning what it means to be masculine or feminine is better than another or required by nature. Human freedom includes the right to self-determination with regard to such matters. We decide what is masculine or feminine behavior. We decide what race means, socially, or if race means anything. No government can or should do that for us.

Racism has been rendered not only evil, by the way, but also ludicrous in light of scientific facts indicating the singular origin of the human species in Africa. There is an old Cuban saying, "Where is your grandmother?" The point of the question is to suggest that there is African ancestry in everyone. This wisdom is now a universal fact of our history as a species. You have African ancestors. Congratulations.

We decide what faith (if any) or what political beliefs to adopt. Being a man is no better than being a woman. (Alarmingly, it is possible that the opposite is true!) Being "masculine" or "feminine" (however we define those words) is an option and a choice for everyone, especially for those who deny this claim. Like it or not, there is masculine and feminine in each of us, regardless of sexual orientation, so that a proper balance should be struck between these aspects of ourselves in achieving individuation. If the word "individuation" is a problem, then substitute "maturity" or "identity."

God cannot be accused of limiting how a person must experience the world by means of gender. God certainly cannot be limited to one gender, for then God would not be omniscient. If God knows all, then God knows what it feels like for a woman to give birth, because He/She shares in that pain. If God's love is infinite, then it must include the sort of love that a mother feels for a child, or a father's love for sick daughter. If we are made in God's image and if God is absolutely free concerning gender-experience, being capable of sharing with us in the full range of human experiences, then (aside from science and politics) even -- or especially -- those who are religious may welcome the idea of gender freedom for sound theological reasons.

It is at least possible that God's greatest gift to humanity is not a single role for each of us as either a man or woman, but the freedom to decide on what being a man or woman means, socially and culturally, together with responsibility for those roles and choices that we make. (Read Gore Vidal's essay "The Birds and the Bees.") If love is the result of God's greatest gift to humanity, which is individual freedom, and if the experience of that emotion is what brings us closest to God, then the freely-given love of any two adult persons -- including sexual love -- is always preferable to an act of violence or hate between them. "Make love, not war."

The following paragraph was written by a man who is gay and an Episcopal priest, a theologian as well as a philosopher, and the point being made is not limited to one gender or sexual orientation:

"... in the [Song of Songs,] eros is celebrated because it is beautiful and revelatory and compelling. This little collection of love poetry, based in ancient Near Eastern traditions, is striking in the way the lovers treat one another as equals, in the openness and vulnerability of the passion they express, in the risks they take to further their relationship, in the way the erotic bond is sufficient by itself, without the trappings of marriage and social status, to explain their connection."

L. William Countryman, Love Human and Divine: Reflections on Love, Sexuality, and Friendship (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2005), p. 24.

Those who are not religious at all will notice that, biologically, all human embryos begin with an equal possibility of becoming either male or female. The development of genital features is quite distinct from the understanding of social roles assigned on the basis of sex, which far from being "mandated" -- you should forgive expression -- by heaven or the State, is a choice for each of us and for societies. Such roles are defined differently in human societies that are distinct. "You mean it's all relative!" No, freedom is not relative. Everyone is free. What we do with that freedom or how we choose to exercise it, certainly is relative to context, social and otherwise.

I realize now that much of the anger people direct at me for saying these things has to do with a fear of this freedom and a desire to escape it. If we are free to decide on gender identity -- regardless of sexual orientation -- then we are responsible for what masculinity or femininity means to us and for what we have done with those labels.

What have we done with such labels and categories? We have made those labels a source of misery and suffering -- a prison -- for many people, who do not fit the narrow conceptions of what a masculine or feminine role requires or permits them to experience. We are responsible for the suffering of our brothers and sisters, who are hurt by social stigmas and discrimination, which must now end.

You are not allowed to go to a museum and see impressionist paintings, if you are a boy, because men play baseball or beat each other up, not bothering with art or other womanly stuff. You are not permitted to get a chemistry set, as a girl, because you will receive a tea set for Christmas, whereas your brother will get the chemistry set, since you are learning to be a "young lady." People are seriously damaged and suffer because of such bullshit. You should get the chemistry set if it interests you. You should see the ballet or the impressionist paintings, if they interest you, regardless of what anyone says about those choices. Those who disapprove are not living your life, so as Anthony Hopkins once said: "Fuck 'em."

God is not a moron. So chill. God has more important things to worry about than the variety of human sexual feelings, which is a good thing. (You must see Kevin Smith's film Dogma.) Love is always a good thing. How we behave when it comes to "roles," such as household cooking and cleaning, sensitivity to beauty, or pursuing and wielding power for the public good, has nothing to do with our bodies, with being masculine or feminine, unless we decide that it has something to do with our bodies and gender roles. The responsibility is ours. We cannot escape it by blaming God, government, nature, science, "egg-head-homosexual-pinkos-in-New York," or liberals. Notice that these may be overlapping categories.

O.K., boys and girls, these are the things you need to know for the test on Tuesday. Now we are going to apply these ideas to a story in the newspaper. See Dan Barry, "Four Leaf Clovers Are Different, Aren't They?," The New York Times, March 15, 2006, at p. B1.

New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn is the second highest official in the city of New York. She happens to be a lesbian and spokesperson for gay rights, as well as a successful young Democrat politician. I think that she might make a fine Mayor of New York some day. She has been invited to the St. Patrick's Day parade this year, but not as a gay woman. I am not sure what that invitation means. But then, neither is she.

Sexual orientation is pretty fundamental to one's identity. It is difficult to know, for example, in what sense I may be welcome in a social setting, but my ethnicity is not. People who think of men, like me, as a stereotype are in for a surprise when they meet me. I am not reducible to a stereotype, even if I embrace my Cuban-American heritage, while enjoying such things as Italian Opera, NBA and WNBA basketball, philosophy, legal theory, cinema, poetry, theater, not to mention an occasional midget wrestling match. Boringly, I am heterosexual. However, I do love "Will & Grace." Mostly because I have a thing for Megan Mullally who plays "Karen." All of these procilivities and many more, especially my loves, amount to my identity. To invite me to a party (which is always a good idea these days!) is to invite all aspects of me. I'll have the nachos!

To invite Christine C. Quinn to the St. Patrick's day parade, while asking her to leave her sexual orientation at home, is not to invite her. By not inviting her to that parade, many others who are also proudly Irish-American -- and proudly gay -- are being disinvited and disrespected. The issue cannot be ignored by these people, because it has been made important by the "dignitaries" who run the parade. Irish culture is so rich, especially in poetry and vocal music, that this lack of humane compassion and understanding on the part of a few people is bizarre. It is not the attitude that should be associated with Catholicism, which is centrally concerned with the message of love, forgiveness and tolerance in human life.

Ms. Quinn should be invited to attend, as the impressive person that she is, as a woman who happens to be gay and also Irish-American. All of those are good things. This is also to invite and welcome others, like her, not only to the parade but to participate, as equals, in all aspects of social life. Perhaps the same should be done at the Columbus Day parades sponsored by the Italian-American and Spanish-American communities. An insult to one of us is an insult to all of us.

I said earlier that I think Ms. Quinn would make a great Mayor of New York some day. I did not say this merely because of her sexual orientation (though I think it is symbolically important that we, progressives, support gay and lesbian candidates for higher office and the judiciary), but because Ms. Quinn has zero tolerance for the political corruption that flourishes in many other American jurisdictions. For example, I learned from an editorial in The New York Observer, May 15, 2006, at p. 4:

Every year around this time, the men and women who populate the City Counsel's chambers put together their things-to-fund lists. All kinds of worthy projects get mentioned and, with luck and the right mix of seniority and chutzpah, a Council member can wind up with lots of goodies to distribute.

This sounded depressingly familiar, but notice Council Speaker Quinn's position:

Now, however, rookie Speaker Christine Quinn has told her colleagues that certain procedures will have to be followed in order to get new or additional funding for a pet project. Requests are to be submitted on a form, and the individual Council member must obtain endorsements for the spending request from nine other members representing at least three boroughs. The idea is to show that each project has city wide appeal and isn't some grubby parochial project. In addition, members would be limited to making four such spending requests. There is no limit now.

We should clone politicians like Ms. Quinn (I have nothing to do with her staff or office and I have never met her), so we can send them out to different U.S. jurisdictions, especially a certain state located West of Manhattan.

On St. Patrick's Day, I will recite some of my favorite poetry by Irish writers. I will see the parade on t.v., hoping to spot Ms. Quinn and many gay Irish-Americans, holding a "real" four-leaf clover, smiling and asking for your support. She has mine. Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick's Day.



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